03/28/08 10:00 AM ET
Braves Opening Day outlook
If arms stay healthy, expect return to glory in NL East race
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
Offensively, the Braves have plenty of firepower. With the switch-hitting duo of Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira fortifying the middle of the lineup, leadoff hitter Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar have the potential to score plenty of runs.
But as Jones has been quick to point out, last year's offensive success only equated to a second straight third-place finish in the National League East. If the Braves are going to unseat the defending champion Phillies, they'll be looking for consistency out of their rotation, which could certainly prove much stronger than expected if Mike Hampton remains on his current, healthy course.
With Rafael Soriano entering a season for the first time as a closer, there are some questions about the Braves' bullpen. But if he stays dominant like he was at the beginning and end of last season, this could prove to be a very surprising group of relievers. Top setup men Peter Moylan and Manny Acosta have both drawn rave reviews throughout the spring from manager Bobby Cox.
Defensively, the team will miss Andruw Jones' Gold Glove defense. But with Mark Kotsay, who was acquired in January to be the new center fielder, the Braves have a capable replacement. And with Escobar's great range at shortstop, the infield has been upgraded since the end of last year.
This team won't have a trouble scoring runs as long as Johnson and Escobar prove to be the high on-base percentage guys they're projected to be. The versatility Jones and Teixeira bring from both sides of the plate will provide nightmare late-inning decisions for opposing managers. Plus, two-time All-Star Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, who has had consecutive 100-RBI seasons, still haven't hit their prime.
Projected starting lineup
|1. 2B Kelly Johnson|
|2. SS Yunel Escobar|
|3. 3B Chipper Jones|
|4. 1B Mark Teixeira|
|5. RF Jeff Francoeur|
|6. C Brian McCann|
|7. CF Mark Kotsay|
|8. LF Matt Diaz|
|1. RHP Tim Hudson|
|2. RHP John Smoltz|
|3. LHP Tom Glavine|
|4. RHP Jair Jurrjens|
|5. LHP Mike Hampton|
|Closer: RHP Rafael Soriano|
|Setup: RHP Peter Moylan|
|Setup: RHP Manny Acosta|
|Middle: LHP/ Will Ohman|
|Middle: RHP Tyler Yates|
|Long: RHP Jeff Bennett|
The days when Julio Franco was available to provide a dangerous pinch-hit threat are long gone, and once again it looks like the Braves will have a weak bench from an offensive perspective. Rookie Martin Prado might prove to be the most consistent pinch-hitter. Josh Anderson or Gregor Blanco could provide some speed. But there isn't a clear-cut late-inning power source or a valuable veteran role player on the bench.
You'll know they're rollin' if ...
Glavine, John Smoltz and Hampton all remain healthy. Simply nearing 42 years old is the only thing that puts the ever-dependable Glavine in this group. If the 300-game winner once again provides close to 200 innings and Smoltz's right shoulder cooperates the same way that Hampton's elbow has this spring, then this starting rotation could certainly be considered among the best in the Majors.
You'll know they're in trouble if ...
The starting rotation is wrecked by injury for a third consecutive season. Added depth will allow the club to compensate for a significant injury better than in recent years. At full strength, the rotation seems to be what could separate the Braves from the Phillies and Mets.
The Mets will come to Atlanta during the season's first weekend and FOX's Saturday afternoon contest could pit their new ace, Johan Santana, against their former ace, Glavine. Taking four of six April games against the Mets didn't help the Braves last year. But with Glavine, Tim Hudson and Smoltz likely to pitch this first weekend, they'll be looking to set a good tone early in the division race.
Last year, the Braves won four of 15 Interleague games and endured a stretch where they scored one run in five consecutive games against the Red Sox and Tigers. This year's Interleague opponents include games against the four American League West teams and a trip to Toronto. On consecutive June weekends, the Braves will face the Mariners and Angels -- the two teams considered the AL West's best.
The Bottom Line
As long as the starters stay healthy, the Braves will be in the thick of a pennant race and if they find their way into the postseason, they'll enter with the confidence that Hudson and Smoltz are capable of being the October horses that teams can ride to a championship.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.